This post was originally written for Hockey Primetime.com. With the Rangers and Senators’ backs against the wall, it seemed timely.
Quiet surrounds you as you walk from the ice to the dressing room after your season has ended.
The only sounds you hear are the player’s sticks, clanking one by one as they drop onto their respective stick rack for the last time.
There’s a low murmur from the medical room, where a doctor is checking out a player who needs some serious tending to. But on the whole, it’s quiet.
Slumped deep in their stalls, the players think. Or at least, they look like they’re thinking. They’re not sure what to think yet. It’s a jumble you can understand – imagine that in an instant, you lost your job, friends, and had to move cities in the next few days.
Some guys are already making their plans to return home, while other think about what could’ve been on the ice. They think about the game, where it went wrong, and how they could’ve done better. Some guys just want to know, What now? What of next year?
And just then, a new voice emerges in the room. A new voice, but coming from the same man that demanded high alert all year. During the year, his words were never just words; they were attempts at leading – or better put, manipulating – the players into being better. Yelling after a win, so everyone knows it’s not time to relax. Congratulating the team’s effort after a loss so everyone is encouraged to at least play hard. Words were never just words, but a lesson that was to be learned.
But this voice – this one is softer and, oddly, more human. There’s no charade when that final buzzer sounds. Your coach speaks, and it’s like you’re meeting him for the first time. He’s proud of you. Proud of the effort. The common player perception of coach vs. team vs. opponent is changed, and for just this one day, it feels like he was on your side the whole time. You forget that sometimes, that it was actually just “team” vs. opponent the whole time, and that he was a part of your team.
His new message will end in information. Information like when we’ll meet for exit interviews and to pack up, and when we’ll go get cocktails as a group. For most guys, the latter is about an hour from happening regardless of when the official designated time is. Nobody stays in town long once it’s over. And there’s no time for cliques on the final day of the year, either. We’re all going to the same place.
Coach leaves the room and silence washes over again. There’s small chitchat from a couple guys in the corner, a welcome sound amidst the heavy feeling in the dressing room.
Then the captain speaks, if only for a few sentences. Something way too corny, like “it’s been an honor playing together.” Everyone is willing to forget that last night they were sitting in the same spot talking about others in the room – specifically, which are to blame for us being down 3-1 in the series. Just yesterday, they were dogs, but today, it’s “been a privilege to serve together, private.” The captain gives the drinking orders: Johnny’s Mud Hut, or some un-trendy place so the guys can actually talk, drink in excess, and maybe talk to a female, dare she choose to hang around when 25 dudes with no tomorrow to walk in.
Someone gets up, and does the handshake/hug with his stallmate, then start moving around the room to hit every stall. Others take their cue and do the same. All at once, you get the good side of your teammates, and regret you couldn’t have done more on the ice to prolong your time together. And just then, the first tape starts coming off shinpads, and the first jersey is off its back.
It’s usually the first thing taken off for most guys, but on this day, it takes forever to get pulled off the last time. No matter how much of a struggle the season was, you usually end up with a pretty strong affiliation with that sweat-soaked logo.
And all at once, tape. Noise. Guys are talking, ripping tape of shin-pads, elbow pads, gauze pads, wherever. If it was taped or tied, it starts coming undone at the same time.
Nobody’s cold tubbing today; there is no tomorrow. Only serious injuries are iced. The shower is running, and it’s become a race to get home and change, get away from this place and spend the night sussing out what happened over suds.
That night, you aren’t trying to drink away the past – the playoffs, tonight’s loss, the missed opportunities. For hockey players, you’re trying to drink away thoughts of the future. As in, tomorrow. What now? New year, new team, new training regimen? Again?
I’ll take another one, thanks.
Square one. Shake the etch-a-sketch, wipe the whiteboard, it’s back to square one.